Some topics covered at a two-month ‘Environmental Reporting’ training in Berlin, Germany, organised by the International Institute for Journalism, IIJ, of InWent, reveals that the world is at a’ tipping point’, an irreversible point of climate change.
Alex Kirby, a freelance journalist, was a pastor before he joined the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, as its religion correspondent. That job took him around the world. If that was what was responsible for the passion with which he talks about key environmental issues concerning the world now, it was to be expected. However, the unexpected was that after Kirby retired after 15 years covering Africa and the Middle East as environment correspondent for radio and television news with the BBC, he combines his consultancy to the UN Environment Programme with being an honorary visiting fellow of Green College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, UK.
That is not all with Kirby. He was among the international environmental journalists invited by the International Institute of Journalism, IIJ, of InWent, Germany, to the two-month ‘Environmental Reporting’ exercise in Berlin for journalists from Africa and Asia, July 4 to August 29. His sessions revived the debate on the proliferation of nuclear energy using the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 26 April 1986 as reference point. ‘International control can be the answer to the proliferation of nuclear power plants today. International control can check the hypocrisy and double standards on the part of nations who possess nuclear weapons’, he said.
Even though the fifteen journalists that attended the course praised Kirby’s sessions as the icing to the cake of their programme, other sessions as well as Kirby’s raised crucial environmental issues. For instance, the excursion to the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, PIK, revealed certain disturbing trends. First was the not-so-apparent confusion with the terms ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ which Jurgen Kropp, head of the research unit of PIK clarified. He said that the term ‘weather’ stood for short term changes in the atmosphere but ‘climate’ was the long term disaster that has started occurring because of the effects of the our near-total reliance on fossil fuels such as gas, petrol and diesel as primary sources of energy. According to Kropp, the Carbon dioxide we release when we burn fuel and diesel is trapped in the earth’s surface because of the inability of the sun to absorb them all. This produces a greenhouse effect. The implication of this is that global temperatures have already started to rise, and weather is becoming unpredictable nowadays. For coastal cities like Lagos that is risk-prone, the situation is very dicey indeed. And that is because with the extreme heat locked up in the earth’s surface, ice glaciers in the North Pole melt and increase sea levels which could make the bar beach overflow its banks and submerge the city. ‘The major challenge is to develop new transition pathways to sustainability. Combating and coping with climate change is possible. However, we must act fast. We must understand that the crisis has irreversible elements, and technological innovation, fair agreements, cooperation, and a more powerful post-Kyoto protocol between North and South is the answer’, Kropp said.
Another session with Henner Weithoner, a renewable energy expert revealed the nature of the answer to the global environmental and energy crisis. ‘When the wind blows, there are people who start building walls and there are people who build windmills’, he said. According to Weithoner, the crisis of climate change can only be averted if more money is thrown at developing renewable energy sources. He said that conventional energies receive about $215billion in subsidies worldwide; a situation the German government seeks to reverse by pumping about $9billion into the renewable energy drive. Some energy experts in Freiburg said that that move is one motivated by the desire of Germany to phase out the 20 percent nuclear energy contributed to the national grid, by 2020, thus substituting it with solar energy. Not everyone is happy with this move however. Investigations reveal that stakes at the Bundestag, Germany’s seat of legislative power, are flexing their muscles with the Green Party over the plan to phase out Germany’s remaining 13 nuclear power plants. The Christian and Social Democrats are in favour of an ‘ausgang from ausgang, an ‘exit from an exiting’ from using nuclear energy in Germany. Proponents of the ausgang from ausgang theory cite paranoia from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and the environmental and health problems it unleashed on Europe afterwards.
At the Solar Information Centre, SIC, in Freiburg, a big German town known for its solar industry, Klaus Heidler said that the Bank PHB one-day-cars-will-run-on-water advert was no gimmick. He said that even though we need a lot of effort to convert the gas in water, research has reached an advanced stage in Germany to remove the gas from water and use it to power vehicles. According to Klaus, a global energy chain exists where it has been revealed that of all the primary energy sources like coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, uranium, only the renewable energy from the sun, wind, geothermal and water have energy consumption patterns that are quite cheap and affordable. ‘Energy from these sources is in abundance in Africa. Before oil reserves deplete about twenty to thirty years from now, your governments would be well advised to look at other methods’, he said. Freiburg, in Germany holds the record as Europe’s powerhouse in the production of photovoltaic solar panels that are highly sought after.
However, it was not always about energy and renewable energy. The training programme also dealt with issues concerning waste management, production of biogas from maize, biodiversity and threatened species, the disappearance of monsoons due to human activity, land degradation and desertification. Ramesh Jaura, European director of Inter Press Service, IPS, said that one reason why there was food crisis was that for the past 25 years, donor organizations worldwide hardly paid any serious attention to agriculture. ‘The earth has only 4 billion hectares of land inhabited by nearly 250 million people. Each year, the deserts of the world advance five kilometres, making a third of the earth’s surface prone to degradation’, Jaura said. With all the talk about donor organizations not funding agriculture, participants visited a biogas factor in the former East German town of Konnern and found out that each year, the German government allows about three percent of its maize yield to be used for biogas production. That allowance makes it possible for producers of biogas in Germany to feed about 100 tons of maize (equivalent to feed a starving village of 500 people for two months) into a state-of-the-art biogas plant everyday.
When TELL reporter who was at a biogas factory with other participants told Tobias Dollberg, the plant manager that the use of maize for production of biogas was responsible for high food costs around the world, he disagreed. He said that even though there are substitutes for maize, he maintained that studies have revealed that biogas from maize is better than any other substitute. ‘Apart from our company, other companies involved in bio-gas production in Germany also use maize as primary raw material for the production of gas for commercial purposes, much in line with Germany’s renewable energy law’, he said.
It was not also all about the environment and energy. The IIJ staff was wonderful. Headed by Marco Hamacher, senior project manager, coordinated Kirsten Freimann, Rea Abermann and Andrea Hess, all project assistants, to organize cultural festivals, German language classes, a city tour which took participants to important historical landmarks like the remnants of the former Eastern Germany, the Berlin Wall, the Zooligischer Garten, a Television station so high up there that gives one a kaleidoscopic view of the city of Berlin and …a lot of parties with a flavour unique only to Berlin.
The International Institute for Journalism of InWent, Germany, is a capacity-building arm of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the German government. It has trained over 500 journalists and allied professionals since 1964. On certificates awarded to participants at the end of the programme, InWent said that Germany realizes that the media plays a decisive role in creating awareness of threats to the environment. Their aim therefore was to enhance the journalist’s ecological knowledge as well as their competence in informing their audience accurately and in a comprehensive way.
Some of the participants in Berlin said the programme afforded them the opportunity to sharpen their reporting skills as well as get to discover something of life in Europe. Gigil Varhghese, reporter with Pragjyoti Communications, Mumbai, India said that the Environmental Reporting training was relevant to her because it equipped her to deal with issues relating to farmer-suicides in her country. ‘Nearly all of the teachers are world-class either in energy matters, biodiversity and agriculture. I was happy to have Roberto Herrscher, a professor of journalism, as my teacher here too’, she said.
The Environmental Reporting sessions took place concurrently with the Online Multimedia programme of the IIJ, also with fifteen journalists dawn from Africa and Asia. It also coincided with the visit of Barack Obama, United States, US, Democratic Party nominee for the November presidential elections.